Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Mysterious Magical Items

Over at the Verbing Noun, David wonders how to maintain the wonder that magical items really ought to have:

The problem is, the mage says "Ok, I'll cast Identify." Suddenly, the DM is faced with an issue. The spell tells the party what the sword is. The sword, as an item, is exactly a +2 Adamantine Longsword. The problem is, that is exactly what goes down on the loot sheet. The party fighter will take the sword you just lovingly described, and write it down exactly as a +2 Adamantine Longsword. Next week/month/whatever, when you play the next session, no one will remember what the sword looks like or feels like.

I like to tackle this issue in two ways. The first one is to make even the exact, standard description mysterious. And I do this by making the items not entirely beneficial. I wrote about this back at the beginning of August:

This is one area where most games, pen-and-paper RPGs and, most especially, computer RPGs alike, almost all stumble, and in the exact same way. By making magic predictable, reliable, and easily controllable, they drain all the color from it. Fireballs not only harm just your enemies, they don’t cause fires to break out or melt the treasure the monsters were carrying. Stored magical power doesn’t leak or cause unexpected effects. Magic is far more reliable and boring than technology; your computer might blue-screen, your light bulbs might pop, and your car may be melting the polar icecaps, but your wand of lightning bolts only ever does 6d6 points of damage to your intended targets.

When you can't trust magic, when you know in advance there will be a cost for using it, it becomes not just another stat bonus, but instead a resource to be used with caution and treated with respect.

That, however, doesn't really address the issue David is talking about here. Why should players be interested in the description of the magical items, their flavor and style? One general rule applies any time you want the players to pay attention to something: if you want them to care, you have to make it important.

History does not always repeat itself. Sometimes it just yells "Can't you remember anything I told you?" and lets fly with a club.
- John W. Campbell

If you want the players to care that the mithril blade was forged by the famed elven smith Norenvyll, then have a collector offer them more than it's market value for the blade. If you want them to care that the Battle of Kessnal Ford was won when an elven champion used this same sword to behead the orcish chieftain Chugrel, have Chugrel's half-orcish daughters assume one of the PCs was that hero when they see him with it in a tavern. Do they want vengeance? Or do they believe the sword has stolen their father's soul, and must be destroyed so his spirit can pass on to the Outer Planes? Or do they owe a debt of fealty to the wielder of the blade, for freeing their mother from the cruel warlord?

You can even have NPCs react to how things look. Even though it wasn't magical, the armour of Sturm from the Dragonlance novels got a reaction from almost everyone who saw it and recognized its significance. What sort of reaction do elves or dwarves have to someone wearing a sword crafted in the elven style? Does that reaction change if the sword was actually crafted by a human smith aping the elvish style? Does the priesthood of the Moon treat differently those who wear the sacred metal silver? Does wearing white, doeskin boots of speed before the Feastday of St. Peret of the Stonemasons get you snickered at in the courts of the High King?

Yeah, you can really go overboard with this, and it only works if your players are interested in these sorts of anthropological details. Still, I've not yet known a player to pass over even a +1 reaction bonus if all they need to do is change out their usual +2 bastard sword for the +1, +2 vs. lycanthropes they've been storing in the bag of holding.


David said...

Certainly interesting ideas. Usually my group doesn't get much into the history of the world when we play, and this would have the secondary effect of possibly creating some interest there. To be honest, I should have thought of this as well; part of the reason I went on that spiel was that I had been reading The Lord of the Rings again, with all the legendary blades that people carry and use for the entire campaign.

Re: Magic doing more than it's supposed to, my group uses that basically as a way of making encounters more fun. It's perhaps dulling the mage's power in a bar brawl a bit, but flinging Fireball, or even Burning Hands, around tends to light everything on fire and get everyone arrested. In the forest, nothing happens because it slows things down.

Anyway thanks for the post and ideas here, interesting stuff.

PatrickWR said...

Burning Wheel has a pretty cool mechanic for using magic. Basically spellcasters make a skill test after each successful spell; if they fail it, their Willpower analog stat starts decreasing, with requisite narrative effects. Our spellcaster character ended up limping around on a cane, not because it was a +3 Staff of Striking, but because he needed the sucker to keep himself upright.

trollsmyth said...

Oh yeah, LotR is a great example. Anduril, reforged from shards of Narsil, is Sauron's bane and a symbol of the rebirth of the line of Numinor. It is part of what gives Aragorn the authority to command the undead traitors his ancestor cursed. Having your magic items reflect the themes and plot, assuming you're using such things, is another way to make them more than just slottable bonuses.

- Brian

Badelaire said...

Thus further argument for the idea that ALL magic items should be, in some way, unique, even with regards to something as mundane as their mechanics - i.e., there should never be a simple "+1 Long Sword". Give even such a simple magic item a bit of a tweak, such as having it generate blue light in a 10' radius upon command, and players will remember it for more than just it's bonus to hit and damage.

Thinking back to the Dragonlance stories, the one thing I remember about Raistlin's staff isn't the statline it has in the rulebook, it's the word "Shirak" and how it made the crystal orb in the dragon's claw glow. It's little things like that, which make magic items cool.

Nick Crayon said...

I really like the way you put it- that you have to make details matter.

It's not fair to get mad at players or DMs for ignoring the juicy little details you put into your creations, when it doesn't make a difference to anybody involved.

Good reading!

trollsmyth said...

Thanks, Nick. As I get older, and my gaming time becomes more precious, I find I'm pushed to make my game more efficient. By this, I mean I need to accomplish more with less: less time, less background, less detail. I have to paint in broader strokes and trust my players to fill in the details, which can be tricky since I prefer odd settings.

One way I accomplish this is to make sure the things I do use in my game accomplish multiple goals at once. The treasure map not only points to another adventure location, but hints at the history of people buried there. The emerald and sapphire necklace is not only a simple bit of jewelry worth 500 gp, but the pattern of the stones contains a hint on how to penetrate the inner crypts. And my magic swords are not just bonuses to damage, but also reasons for the players to dig more deeply into the setting.

Yeah, I know that's not quite what you were talking about, but they are related, and I got to what you said by way of what I just wrote here. But as you say, players are very good at focusing on what really matters when the dice hit the table. "Blah, blah, blah, go to Whispervine Vale, blah, blah, blah, bring me back seven troll ears, blah, blah, BLAH, blah, blah..." If it's not important, it's not retained. So you need to make it important, and make sure the players understand it's important.

Nice start on your blog. I love the title. Can't wait to see what you and your players do with LL.

- Brian